Monthly Archives: September 2018

Curriculum is Not a Journey. An Argument Against an Aims-Led Approach.

The curriculum as journey, has a destination. After-all destination is often the point of a journey and one usually makes decisions in the light of where we wish to arrive rather than the possibilities afforded en-route. This goal-directed approach absolutely has its strengths, especially in travel, but in curriculum design and delivery it can result in a narrow focus or even become a distraction in that the destination destroys the fabric of the things being studied. It is for this reason that curriculum is far better thought of as narrative, a collection of stories, in which the final destinations are within the gift of the readers.

Why?

In the book ‘The Curriculum and the Child’ John White suggests that:

“The main argument for shifting from professional to political control; of the… curriculum is that questions about the aims and content of education are intimately connected with views about the kind of society we wish to live in.” 

The well-being of the learner and the well being of society must be, White claims, at the heart of a curriculum. For him, an aims-led curriculum is necessary in a democratic society and that what and how a child learns must change in order to deliver on these aims. He suggests that the curriculum should be decided through local, national and supra-national bodies – Local Authorities, National Government and (relevant to when he wrote it) the EU.

Whilst many of his aims seem sensible and his arguments are well-made and clearly thought through I have reservations about the overall approach. It is a type of thinking that appeals to control-freak politicians and bureaucrats, it leads to spurious activities in schools in the name of curriculum aims, and due to the aims being either impossible to measure, or measured to a point of meaningless, most obviously in the more recent case of ‘national curriculum levels’ it is the desire to ensure aims are met that does more damage to education than people who support an aims-led approach might have wished for..

Mike Newby, Emeritus Professor of Education at Plymouth University, wrote:

‘A curriculum is a blueprint for what we want children to become’.

For me, this short, clear statement is rather chilling. The thought that through various machinations the EU, Her Majesty’s Government and my local council, who have proven over years to not be so adept at managing many things should busy themselves in deciding what our children should become is positively North-Korean.

This whole approach including phrases like ‘curriculum is a journey,’ or ‘our pupils follow a flight-path’ and measures such as tracking and the inevitable ‘interventions’ that might follow if one deviates from the chosen path can easily have sinister overtones. For some it’s even an aim, although possibly a joke, to educate children not to be Tories… 

For deciding what a child is to become is not the job of government, arguably it is not even the job of a parent. Instead, amongst all the constraints, physically, culturally, socially that a child encounters in their life it should be down to them to become and continue to become the person that they might wish to be. Despite what the EU might have in store for them.

This is not to say that schooling should be an anarchic hotchpotch of ill-thought through activities, far from it, but the direction should be based not on shaping what they are to become but giving them a sense of where the world is and how it got to here so that they might find themselves to be culturally mobile enough to help make the world as they see fit. This is an education in the pursuit of wisdom in which children are able to join in with the great conversations of our time, with the knowledge, competence and ability to contribute and make a difference should they see fit. This is an education for freedom.

In their publication, Subject to change: new thinking on the curriculum (2007), The ATL union proposed a national curriculum that:

“Being a statutory curriculum … the Government answers the big questions about the aims of the curriculum, whilst the implementation is put in local hands.”

In her foreword Mary Bousted wrote:

“if we are to prepare young people for a world in which what is known to be true changes by the hour; a world in which access to information is at the touch of a keyboard, where rote learning of facts must give way to nurturing through education of essential transferable skills that enable the next generation to navigate the information age. That is why we advocate a skills-based curriculum. One that is focused on communication, physical, interpersonal and intrapersonal skills and thinking and learning skills; all essential components of the educated person able to think and act effectively in the twenty-first century… We need to radically change our approach to what we teach, how we teach and what, when and how we assess if we are to remain a competitive nation in the globalised economy. There is not much time left, so we need to act now.”

The then new national curriculum was heavily invested in a skills-based approach, championing the aims of all children in becoming Successful Learners, Confident Individuals and Responsible Citizens who would Be Healthy, Stay Safe, Enjoy and Achieve, Make a Positive Contribution and Achieve Economic Well-Being. In his preface to the ATL publication Mick Waters, the then Director of Curriculum at the Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA) wrote that:

“by seeing subject discipline as more vital than subject content, by seeing links between subjects, by seeing the world through important dimensions such as globalisation, technology or sustainability, we start to create a sense of learning. By providing a curriculum based on real purpose and real audiences we have a chance of engaging children in compelling experiences that offer a chance for them to understand processes. By assessing progress on a range of measures we will see growth in the individual.” 

This ‘growth’ in progress towards the ‘aims’ as stated in, what was called, ‘the big picture of the curriculum’ was through a variety of lenses, including ‘personal, learning and thinking skills’ such as creativity and collaboration and ‘overarching themes’ such as ‘identity’, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘technology’.

Yet this wasn’t enough for the ATL:

“The classical and elite model containing a narrow range of intellectual knowledge and skill is inappropriate for an age of universal education. In Britain, this model, with its organisation based on the academic subject, continues to be in competition with models built on the needs of children. Although there has recently been a greater recognition of the importance of developing a wider range of skills, attempts to integrate them into the subject-based curriculum has had limited success.

It is time to make a fresh start. If a curriculum is to centre on the whole range of skills needed by tomorrows’ citizens, it must be designed that way from the start.”

It goes on to say:

“The approach suggested here is to move away from defining the curriculum in terms of knowledge, whether generally defined as ways of knowing or as detailed knowledge content, and to replace it with a definition in terms of skills.”

Adding:

“Most people are not intellectuals. Most people do not live their lives predominantly in the abstract. It is not clear that it would be preferable to do otherwise; the world cannot survive only through thought. It is more appropriate now to move towards encouraging action based on understanding.”

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The legendary darts player…a model for the acquisition of these skills.

Suggesting that:

“Science is not to be abolished, but refocused to provide the knowledge base for practical activity.”

This “comprehensive curriculum… recognises that to access fully these skills and understandings we all need some basic skills, especially numeracy, oracy and literacy, but would acquire them integrally with the practice of other skills. The legendary darts player who becomes numerically competent would be a model for the acquisition of these skills.”

And this encapsulates the problem of the aims-based national curriculum. If your aim for curriculum design is to result in the darts player approach to education then you are completely at odds with an approach that might wish children to be more academic, I don’t know, ‘the physics professor approach…’

In the late 1960’s Popham posited:

“It is somehow undemocratic to plan in advance precisely how the learner should behave after instruction.”

arguing that serendipitous education would be overridden by the teacher pursuing, doggedly, the outcome required, rather than the educative opportunities afforded by the subject being studied.

From White’s idea that aims-led is more democratic, we have the direct opposite idea that it is essentially anti-democratic. My thoughts are with the latter. Consider this, it is the mechanistic overtones of flight-path following, aims-led education, that leads one into totalitarian territory. The Chinese aims for education are stated as:

“In general terms, education in the People’s Republic of China must serve the construction of socialist modernization, be combined with production and labour, and foster builders and successors with all round development of morality, intelligence and physique for the socialist cause.”

And in North Korea:

“The State shall embody the principles of socialist pedagogy so as to raise rising generation to be steadfast revolutionaries who will fight for society and the people, to be people of the new Juche type who are acknowledgeable, morally sound and physically healthy.”

Now you might agree, or have some sympathy, with those aims or any one of the other of the aims listed above but would you want your child to be completely set on a journey where some faceless officials have decided already how they should turn out rather than discover their various destinies through the trials and tribulations of a more organic and authentic life as lived rather than a journey with a singular destination in mind.

It might be that you sense that the destinations suggested in the 2007 English National Curriculum are so open to interpretation that they can’t do any harm. But these destinations ensured how levels were written, how content was shaped and how classroom activities were to follow ‘creative’ and ‘engaging’ lesson plans that began the long day’s journey into night for that ill-fated national curriculum. Overall aims can cause chaos throughout a system, especially when those aims are written by well meaning bureaucrats who think that social-engineering is part of their remit and that schools are the very means of achieving it.

Lawrence Stenhouse wrote that:

“Education as induction into knowledge is successful to the extent that it makes the behavioural outcomes of the students unpredictable.”

This echoes something that St Augustine wrote centuries earlier:

“Who is so foolishly curious as to send his son to school to learn what the teacher thinks?”

Stenhouse suggested that:

“Education enhances the freedom of man by inducting him into the knowledge of his culture as a thinking system.”

It is this that we need to have in mind when designing curricula. We are not presenting a journey with a destination, instead, we are opening up a number of perspectives and narratives through which a child can make the most of their life. This key to cultural mobility and nimbleness is the essence of a subject-based, knowledge-rich education in which the pupil is inculcated into the arguments, debates, controversies and great questions and works of the time and all-time before so that they at least have a chance to have a view on the complex world in which they will live their life. And also help them raise their children in a way that values the culture and cultures of the world in which they, too, will be born.